Lion hunting proposal reflects belief in declining numbers

August 9, 2013 | By: Kevin Woster - Rapid City Journal

Solid evidence that the Black Hills mountain lion population is decreasing led the state Game, Fish & Parks Commission to propose a reduced kill quota for the next hunting season, a commissioner said Thursday.

John Cooper of Pierre, a former secretary of the GF&P Department now serving on the citizen commission, said eight lion seasons and extensive data from research, including hundreds of lions that were fitted with radio-tracking collars over the years gives GF&P biologists a solid grasp the lion population.

The biologists made a compelling recommendation for a reduced kill quota in order to maintain a healthy lion population while controlling its impacts on other big game animals, Cooper said.

"We're working on sustaining a large predator in our ecosystem in a way that doesn't conflict with our management goals for elk and deer," Cooper said. "We're not going to wipe the lions out. There's not a commissioner on there who wants to head that way."

But they do want to continue heading down in lion numbers, for a while at least. That's why commissioners approved a string of seasons that increased the number of lions that could be killed in a season.

Last year the overall kill quota reached a high of 100, with a subquota on female lions at 70. Reaching either would have ended the season, which was set to run from Dec. 26, 2012, through March 31.

But the season ran its full length with only 61 lions killed. In 2012, the overall quota of 70 lions was reached and exceeded by three in two months.

John Kanta, regional wildlife manager for GF&P in Rapid City, said the reduced lion kill this year was important in the commission's decision to propose the kill quota of 75 and a female subquota of 50, which ws the recommendation by Kanta and the GF&P staff.

"A couple of commissioners said they were setting the harvest limit until it wasn't reached, and then it would be time to back off," Kanta said.

The proposal made last week is now up for almost two months of public comment. Commissioners will take final action on the proposal following a public hearing at the Oct. 3-4 meeting in Spearfish.

Meanwhile, commissioners have asked GF&P biologists for more information on the lion population in and around Custer State Park. Lion depredation on elk calves has been a significant problem for a depleted elk herd there. Cooper said commissioners want to know if more should be done to put hunting pressure on lions in the park area.

The commission allowed the use of hounds for a limited number of lion hunters in the park this year, hoping to increase the kill there. Cooper said he and other commissioners want to make sure enough is being done to help the Custer State Park elk.

"We've been killing lions inside and near the park in the season," Cooper. "Are we doing enough to target those lions? We want more information on that."

Lions have become a significant mortality factor for elk, deer and other big game in the Black Hills. That adds to the management challenge for GF&P.

GF&P biologists estimate that the mountain lion population in South Dakota's portion of the Black Hills was about 230 prior to the season that ended last spring. The population estimate a year earlier was about 300.

Kanta said recent season data and more information from ongoing research gives wildlife managers more to work with on the season recommendation.

If a total of 75 lions were killed in the next season, the projection would be for a population of about 150 in January 2015, Kanta said. That would be near the bottom end of a population goal set by the commissioners a few years ago.

"At 75, that's still pretty aggressive," Kanta said. "As a staff, we felt like 75 was the most we could harvest without significant negative impacts on the population."

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